Monday, August 20, 2012

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby

Why I read it: Recommended by a friend.

Summary: The author, after suffering a massive stroke leaving him with locked-in syndrome, tells the story of life inside a lifeless body.

My Thoughts: I'm not qualified to review this book. I don't have enough of a vocabulary with which to describe the depths of emotions this book plumbs. But I have a few thoughts to share.

We've all thought about it, when faced with wheelchair-bound, voice-stilled unfortunates. What's it like? How do you cope with sudden, unexpected disabilities, inabilities? At what point does your mind accept you can't do what you used to do, or does it ever? Is it hell on earth?

Bauby tells us the story, one eyelid batting at a time (how he wrote the book, in a dictation code, letter by letter), and one can see that it is indeed hell.

But what got me about this tale is his particular past, his circumstance, his memories. He had lived a good life. He was the editor of the French magazine Elle. He had visited faraway places, met famous people, attended galas and parties. In short, the memories that ran through his head in the final days of his all-too-short life were good ones, or at least he had good thoughts to fall back on if he so chose to consider them.

What would it be like for someone not so fortunate in life? What if the person who had written this book had been abused as a child? had been born into a world of violence and hatred? never knew love? then ended up locked in with nothing but memories of pain and angst? Would that be an even deeper level of hell?

Requiescat in Pace, Jean-Do.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Sea of Troubles by JoAnn Semones

Why I read it: To review it for Wreck & Rescue and Sea History magazines.

Summary: The stories of the major wrecks that have occurred off California's Point Sur, south of Monterery.

My Thoughts: I've studied shipwrecks for nearly two decades, now, as a student and writer of Coast Guard history, and for some reason it took this book to drive home one important point for me.

I love shipwreck books (that's not the point). But what it took me this long to realize is the randomness of them in relation to the points - and by points I mean peninsulas, bays, shoals, ledges, etc. - about which we write. Let me explain.

As a writer working in Massachusetts, I may choose, oh, let's say, Boston Lighthouse and the Brewster Islands. If I were to do a shipwreck survey book, I'd be talking about ships of different sizes, wrecking over three hundred years, carrying different cargoes, and passengers from numerous different places around the Atlantic world.

In short, Semones' book, her third in the genre, captures stories of wrecked ships that have nothing more in common than the fact that they wrecked in the same general area. Even the hows and whys are different - collisions, strandings, fires, etc. The wrecks of Point Sur are also classified in another way, though, as they all fall under the umbrella of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. They didn't know that at the time they wrecked, though.

There's one thing about Semones' writing that warrants further mentioning, and that is that she loves the stories of the people as well as the ships, and does a great job of humanizing these often tragic tales. That might seem a little macabre, but a little personality goes a long way. Anybody can tell the story of the airship Macon, but who was at the controls?

Scapegoats of the Empire by George Witton

Why I read it: Saw the movie in college while taking a British history course.

Summary: The backstory behind the movie Breaker Morant, four officers from an Australian unit charged with murdering enemy prisoners during the Boer War.

My Thoughts: First, yes, like most others, I read the book after seeing the movie. I was taking a class at UMASS Amherst about British history, and the professor, a movie buff, showed us a few clips. I was hooked. I took the book out of the library and read pieces, but it got lost in the shuffle of college life and the ridiculous reading workload of a student taking five history courses simultaneiously.

This time I got it on Kindle.

The story is just as gripping now as it was in 1991. Witton is ordered to execute Boer prisoners - a previous commanding officer, Captain Hunt, savagely murdered by the Boers, ordered a "take no prisoners" situation - and is caught in military hell. Execute them, face court-martial. Disobey the order, face court-martial. In the end, with three others he is tried and convicted of numerous murders. Two of the men, including the infamous Lieutenant "Breaker" Morant, are executed. Witton is given the death sentence, which is then commuted by Lord Kitchener to life imprisonment.

The story reaches well beyond the wilds of South Africa, far past the blurred lines of the combat zone. With various nationalities involved - the countries of the empire, the natives of South Africa, the Dutch Boers, and a murdered German missionary - restitution is demanded. Scapegoat becomes the buzz word; someone has to pay. In the end, the executions of Morant and Handcock do the trick. While Witton sits in prison - for following orders - the Boers see that the British took the situation seriously, and decide to come to peace. The Boer generals are invited to England as guests of the nation as Witton petitions for his release from his 3x7x7 room.

Eventually, it is granted, and he returns home to Australia five years after he left it. He publishes this book, and it is quickly censored in the spirit of keeping relations between Australia and England on the up-and-up.

It takes a bit of suspension of ignorance to read through quickly. South African place names fly fast and hard through the first half of the book, and the stories of the incidents in question are told repeatedly, but the facts must be presented. Witton relied heavily on primary sources to tell the story, but if there's one thing the American people today have shown they like, it's a good courtroom drama. This was the real thing.

Beyond the movie is the story Witton tells of prison life in early twenty-first century England. Was he a scapegoat? It seems so, and in the end he lost three years of his freedom. Morant and Handcock, though, lost it all in the cause of empire.

Road to Valor by Aili and Andres McConnon

Why I read it: Another tale of World War II, this from my family's ancestral home of Italy.

Summary: An Italian cyclist, Gino Bartali, finds himself at the peak of his career as Fascism, then World War II overrun his country. He uses his cycling ability to help save the Jews of Italy from the hands of the Nazis.

My Thoughts: I've said it before and I'll say it ad nauseum. We'll never understand the full story of World War II. There were too many people involved, too many minor tales to ever be collected, too many, in fact, that have already left us forever.

Bartali's heroics comprise just one of those tales. His rise to cycling fame coincided with the rise of Mussolini to power, and it affected his career, as the government chose who would race where and when, in an effort to control nationalistic image. Mussolini was only photographed from low angles, to make him look taller, for instance, lest the world think of Italians as small and weak (which they were through World War I - read more in the book). If the government felt Bartali stood no chance in the Tour de France, he could not go. Totalitarianism still holds such cards today in certain parts of the world.

When the war struck, Bartali did his military duty, then went beyond, clandestinely aiding the Jews of his home country by smuggling materials for fake identification papers to printers willing to do the work under the risk of death. Bartali, of course, faced the same. He never even told his wife what he was doing at the time. It was calculated, of course, but he obviously reached a point in his life, in the war, when he realized that life was about more than just him, that there were greater causes than self-preservation.

The amazing irony of the book comes after the war, when political turmoil strikes Italy, and riots are about to break out. All the while, Bartali is in the Alps, racing the Tour de France once again, ten years after his pre-war victory. News of his placing could swing the future of Italy in one direction or another.

Bartali had the temperament of many a superior athlete, and that probably gets underplayed in this book. But when the chips were down, he threw in and showed supreme selflessness. One wonders how today's athletes would react.

No, I'd rather not even think about it.

Bunch of Amateurs by Jack Hitt

Why I read it: I liked the underlying theme, of Americans tinkering in their garages trying to create the next great thing.

Summary: Americans never give up on the notion that there always exists the potential for a better mouse-trap.

My Thoughts: He had me until the very last words, but I'll save that for the end.

Much of what the author says is true. Americans are tinkerers, dreamers. Sometimes that's a good thing, sometimes it's dangerous. Too many people, for instance, have achieved backyard nuclear fusion. But there are many others who have made real scientific discoveries through avocational pursuits, to the disappointment of the people actually paid to make them.

The author runs through the sciences - ornithology, archaeology, genetics, robotics, etc. - and shows how Americans are at work in their garages, in their parlors under assumed company names, or simply sitting behind a computer screen, finding out truths.

We've all met them - the crackpots, the nutjobs, the people we look at and say, "can you imagine spending your entire life like that guy? focused on nothing but that one thing?" For some of us it's birders who can break down an avocet feather by feather, for others it's the guy who has worked in accounting his whole life but swears an ancient meteor struck in his backyard, and my god, his evidence when he presents it is pretty damn enticing.

Hitt shows us that sometimes avocation overpowers vocation. We hate our jobs, for which we are paid to be experts; we love our passions, because we are free to explore them without restraint. University professors have to pick and choose projects based on funding, backing; backyard archaeologists can dig and dig and dig.

I just wish he didn't use the final words he chose, "the amateur's dream is the American dream." The American dream changes with the generations. He has the right to espouse it; it is one version of the American dream, but the whole thing is just now way too cliche. I felt the book was wrapping up in a much stronger way. Oh well.

Read it, though, and become inspired. Figure out why we are the way we are, why you do the things you do on the weekends, tinkering with the hot rod, gazing into the starry sky, flipping over rocks in search of snakes, or whatever it is that you do with your free time, or your time of freedom, to be more precise.

Las Vegas Soul by Brian DeVido

Why I read it: A love of boxing history.

Summary: "TNT" Timmons and his trainer "Scrap Iron" Fletcher take the heavyweight title, lose it, and fight their way back.

My Thoughts: When one cursorily looks at it, there's not much to it. Stand toe-to-toe, bash each other's brains out. Right?

Wrong, of course. Watch one fight, then watch thirty more. Pick out the nuances, how and why the big punches get thrown, why they land. It can be a simple as a feint, a head bob, a step in the wrong direction, or an unanticipated jab step in the right one. DeVido's book, the sequel to Every Time I Talk to Liston, dives into the details of boxing skills and strategy. Along the way, as TNT and Scrap move from the chamopinship bout to the rematch and beyond, DeVido shows the evils of overthinking, overstrategizing, and how sometimes the easiest route to redepmtion follows the simplest, most comfortable path. He also shows that one man's version of redemption is not necessarily the same as the next man's, even if those men are training partners.

What I enjoyed most about this book was DeVido's deep knowledge of boxing history. He funnels it through his characters. Scrap and his uncle, who dispenses advice to both his nephew and TNT, from one generation back, talk in old issues of Ring magazine, taking the lessons of boxing's past and applying them to TNT's fights. More than that, he inserts the characters into that world. The heavyweight title in Las Vegas Soul once laid across the shoulders of Mike Tyson, of Muhammad Ali. TNT takes his place in that long ancestry. He someday will be an the topic of an article in an old issue of Ring magazine that a future champion will read.

In an interesting subplot, Scrap, in particular, is haunted, seeing what he believes to be the ghost of Sonny Liston, former heavyweight champ. Despite numerous trips to Liston's graveside to talk to him, Scrap sees his ghost in a jazz musician in a club, a man who shares the same first name, is about the same age as Liston would have been had he not died, and bares a strong resemblance to the former champ. He wrestles with asking the question when he meets the man, finally getting up the courage to find out if there is any connection.

Driven to achieve, Scrap pushes his fighter to the limit, taking the title, but then losing it quickly. Theirs was a maturity problem. They peaked too soon, on the raw energy of youth. They had much to learn. The story is of the journey from the top of the mountain back to its base, and the climb back up again.